Emboldened By Impunity: The History and Consequences of Failure to Enforce Iranian Violations of International Law

31 Pages Posted: 4 Jun 2007 Last revised: 4 Nov 2007

See all articles by Orde F. Kittrie

Orde F. Kittrie

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law


This paper is part of a Syracuse Law Review symposium issue entitled A Nuclear Iran: The Legal Implications of a Preemptive National Security Strategy. The paper details how the Islamic Republic of Iran has flouted international law with impunity over the last three decades, a trend that has accelerated in recent years and become more dangerous with Iran's illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons. Part I of this paper reviews the history of violent breaches of international law by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The paper specifies which international laws have been violated by these Iranian government actions, reviews the evidence tying Iran to these acts, analyzes the surprisingly weak international reactions to these violations, and concludes that Iran has yet to be meaningfully sanctioned for any of these violations.

Early violations of international law by the Islamic Republic of Iran included the seizure of the U.S. embassy in Teheran and its diplomats in 1979, and the Iranian-directed bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983. In March 1992, Hizbollah, in coordination with the Iranian Embassy, bombed the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, killing twenty-nine. Another flagrant Iranian violation occurred in September 1992, when Iran assassinated four Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin. A German judge ruled that the Berlin killings had been ordered by Iran's top political leadership, which included Iran's then and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was Iran's President at the time and is currently Iran's third ranking official. In July 1994, at Iran's behest, a truck filled with explosives destroyed the Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, Argentina, killing 85 people. Remarkably, none of these flagrant violations of international law resulted in significant economic or other punishment of Iran.

Iran has in recent years continued flouting international law with impunity. Iranian President Ahmadinejad's repeated urging that Israel be wiped off the map violates both Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and the Genocide Convention's prohibition of direct and public incitement to commit genocide. Yet no sanctions have been imposed.

Iran is currently the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism, providing Hizballah and various Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas with extensive funding, training and weapons. Iran's support for these groups violates several legally binding provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1373. Iran's continued harboring of senior al Qaeda officials also violates Resolution 1373. The Security Council has neither condemned any of these Iranian violations nor imposed any sanctions in response to them.

Part II of this paper examines the Iranian regime's ideology. It notes that while some have argued that President Ahmadinejad's statements calling for the destruction of the United States and Israel are not reflective of the overall Iranian leadership, similar calls have been made by Supreme Leader Khamenei and by Hashemi Rafsanjani, the current third-ranking official.

Part III of this paper details Iran's violations of international laws relating to nuclear nonproliferation and analyzes the international community's hesitant and tepid response to those violations. In August 2002, the IAEA discovered an 18-year pattern of noncompliance by Iran with its obligations to report all its nuclear activities. Over those eighteen years, Iran had built major nuclear facilities without telling the IAEA, and without the IAEA detecting them. Yet the IAEA failed to formally report Iran's non-compliance to the Security Council until February 2006, three-and-a-half years later. Iranian officials have crowed about how the negotiations between it and the West during that time and since have bought Iran time to move forward with its nuclear program.

On December 23, 2006, in Resolution 1737, the Security Council finally sanctioned Iran for its nuclear nonproliferation violations. Three months later, in Resolution 1747 of March 24, 2007, the Security Council responded to Iran's violation of the legally binding requirements of Resolution 1737 by slightly augmenting its sanctions on Iran. The paper finds that Iran's heavy dependence on oil exports and other foreign trade leaves Iran highly vulnerable to strong economic sanctions. Yet the sanctions imposed by Resolutions 1737 and 1747 are, as detailed in this paper, remarkably weak, too weak to coerce Iran into compliance, contain Iran's ability to advance its nuclear weapons program, or deter other states from following Iran's lead.

The Resolution 1737 and 1747 sanctions are so weak because Russia, with support from China, refused to let the resolutions go forward until they were heavily watered down. Indeed, the sanctions' weakness stands in stark contrast to major Russian and Chinese transactions with Iran that were unaffected by the sanctions and thus represent leverage lost. With such weak sanctions and business as usual for the most important Russian and Chinese deals, it is no surprise that Iran has shown no signs of backing down from its nuclear program.

As the paper describes, the international community has learned in recent years that comprehensive sanctions can stop both illicit nuclear weapons programs and terrorism. It was discovered, in the wake of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, that the IAEA's special inspections regime for Iraq, coupled with comprehensive Security Council sanctions, had destroyed Iraq's nuclear weapons program and kept it from restarting. Strong, universally implemented sanctions also induced Libya's government to forsake terrorism and completely and verifiably relinquish its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.

Yet the sanctions contained in Resolutions 1737 and 1747 are far weaker than the sanctions which stopped the Iraqi and Libyan nuclear weapons program. Indeed, the sanctions imposed on Iran by these resolutions are weaker than those the Council had previously imposed in response to many lesser threats to international peace and security. The paper concludes that so long as the international community continues to fail to hold Iran accountable for its violations of international law, Iran will continue to engage in such violations, with increasingly dangerous consequences.

Keywords: Iran, international law, sanctions, nuclear, nonproliferation, violations, Security Council, genocide, terrorism, IAEA

Suggested Citation

Kittrie, Orde F., Emboldened By Impunity: The History and Consequences of Failure to Enforce Iranian Violations of International Law. Syracuse Law Review, Vol. 57, pp. 519-49, 2007 (Symposium), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=991043

Orde F. Kittrie (Contact Author)

Arizona State University (ASU) - Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law ( email )

Box 877906
Tempe, AZ 85287-7906
United States

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